She Disguised as a Man and Became The Sole Female Pope of the Catholic Church

Jhemmylrut Teng

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The Catholic church has been known for keeping secrets and conspiracies that left the public to wonder in its mysteries for centuries. One tale that has been haunting the Vatican is the missing records of the only woman pope that ruled the Catholic church for over two years.

However, based on historians’ investigations, there have been documents proving that a female pope reigned to the Papal States during the medieval period. These reports will be the basis of this article to tell the story of the sole female pope in history, known as Pope Joan.

Joan’s Early Life

Mary Malone, a former nun who wrote Women in Christianity: The First Thousand Years, argued that Pope Joan existed. In her book, she dedicated a chapter for the woman pope. Malone gathered all accounts from ancient historians claiming of Joan’s existence. One of which was from Martin Polonus, a Polish Dominican. In his 13th-century manuscript, Chronicle of the Popes and Emperors, he narrated the early life of the sole popess, named Johannes Anglicus.

In A.D. 800, English missionaries came to Germany to preach Christianity. The missionaries built a monastery called Fulda in the town of Mainz, which became a center of education and conservation for boys. During that era, opportunities were focused on boys, while girls were confined at home and not even encouraged to wander the streets.

Climbing Her Way To Papacy

Despite the status quo, Johannes seemed ahead of her years; at an early age, she disguised herself as a boy to learn Greek and Latin in the monastery. When her lover, an English Benedictine monk, went to Athens, she accompanied him wearing a man’s clothes. In Athens, Johannes progressed her education, and her impressive intelligence was even described as second to none.

Consequently, Johannes made her way to Rome, bearing the name of John Anglicus (English John). There, she learned science, and her distinguished knowledge earned the noblemen’s respect. She became a secretary to the Curia, then promoted as a cardinal, and won the papacy by a unanimous decision. Polonus said, Johannes, claimed the pontiff’s throne in A.D. 855.

Identity Revealed by Accident

When Johannes was crowned as the new pope, she used the papal name, Pope John VIII. During her reign, she got pregnant by one of her trusted attendants. She managed to conceal her pregnancy to the public, and no one figured out her secret as papal robes were very body-disguising.

Unexpectedly, Johannes delivered her child while in a procession from St. Peter’s to the Lateran, in the street named Via Sacra, between the Colosseum and St. Clement’s church.

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On that street, Johannes almost died. After the incident, she was confined, deposed, and did penance for many years. His son, who became the Bishop of Ostia, had her mother buried in that same street. Succeeding popes even avoided the Via Sacra because of that horrible occurrence.

Contradicting Accounts Of Joan’s Existence

In the 9th century, Rome and the Vatican were not even remotely close to today’s solemn and civilized faith culture. Back then, the Christian faith was home to bawdy monks, scheming cardinals, infidelities, melodrama, corruption, and violence.

“Popes … killed each other off, hammered each other to death…There were 12-year-old popes … we have knowledge of a 5-year-old archbishop. … It was a very odd time in history.” — Mary Malone

Therefore, Malone, believed that having a woman with the nerve and ambition, disguised as a man and became a pope, was plausible in medieval times.

Earlier Reports of Joan’s Legend

Before Martin Polonus wrote his manuscript, there was already an existing account from Dominican chronicler Jean de Mailly. In his book, “Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost,” he narrated the unnamed female pope’s life, who cross-dressed as a man, an erudite, worked in the Curia and became a pope in 1100 instead of A.D. 855.

That nameless popess had a similar fate to Johannes, but her death scene was told more brutally:

“one day this person went out on horseback, and on this occasion gave birth to a son; that she was then bound to the tail of a horse, dragged round the city, stoned to death by the mob, and was buried at the place where she died; and that an inscription was put up there as follows: “Petre pater patrum papissae prodito partum”. In her reign, the story adds, the Ember days were introduced, called therefore the “fasts of the popess”. — Jean de Mailly

In the 14th century, the church and the public officially adopted the name Joan for the unnamed popess, but many believed it was Johannes Anglicus.

The Catholic Church Dubbed Joan as a Myth

Based on the Catholic Encyclopedia’s records, the female pope’s account was undoubtedly received until the 15th century and accepted even in the Council of Constance in 1415. She was a historical personage of the Catholic church, she even had her statue with a carved bust that was displayed in Siena Cathedral. However, during Pope Clement VIII’s reign, he requested to transform Joan’s statue into Pope Zacharias.

Toward the 16th to 17th century, the Catholic church dismissed Pope Joan’s existence and called her story a myth. Even in the 20th century, historians contested that there was no Pope Joan disguised as John VIII. Although there was Pope John VIII on the Vatican’s list of pontiffs, he was a man, and he reigned from A.D. 872 to A.D. 882 and not in A.D. 855.

Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe, authors of The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan, theorize that if a female pope existed, a more reasonable time frame is 1086 and 1108, those were the years that several antipopes lived. This argument supports Jean Mailly’s story that Joan reigned in 1100 for two years and one month.

Gender Test for Papal Candidates

While Joan’s existence created a debate, there was a specific tradition during the medieval period believed connected to the popess’ incident. It was the male examination for the pontiffs, wherein they were required to sit on the porphyry chair, a purple marble chair with a hole in it. Crowned popes had to sit on this chair, while a cardinal placed his hand inside the chair to check whether the pontiff had testicles.

The genital test for popes was emphasized by Swedish Lutheran, Lawrence Banck, in his Roma Triumphans. He claimed that he personally witnessed such an event when he attended the coronation of Pope Innocent X in 1644:

“Afterwards, [the Pope] is taken by [the canons of the basilica] to a marble seat with a hole, which was placed not far from [the portico of the basilica], so that, seating upon it, his genitals might be touched. It is not to be doubted but that the matter is so: indeed, it is most certain that such a marble seat with a hole is kept in the same Lateran Basilica, which we have seen many times.”
‘After her death [Pope Joan] they introduced this cautionary measure, that thenceforth the Supreme Pontiff should be taken to the pontifical seat and not confirmed before, sitting on that seat with a hole, his genitals should be touched.”

However, Banck’s claims were dismissed by other historians and the Catholic church, even dubbed the narrative as satire. They contested that the porphyry chair was last used by Pope Leo X, dated in 1513. Therefore, the succeeding popes, including Pope Innocent X, no longer used the controversial chair on papal coronation.

Pope Joan’s Monogram

In 2018, Micheal Habicht, an archaeologist at Flinders University in Australia, believed that Pope Joan’s story was real. He based his claims on using silver coins known as “deniers” used in Western Europe during the Middle Ages.

He particularly examined deniers minted with the name of the emperor of Franks. At the back of those coins had a pope’s monogram, in which the pope’s initials were embedded. Habicht noticed that there were two kinds of coins attributed to Pope John VIII. One was from John VIII that ruled from A.D. 872 to A.D. 882, while the other one was from another John VIII, who reigned in earlier years.

Habicht believed that an earlier dated monogram belonged to Johannes Anglicus, which was Pope Joan.

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Habicht also argued in his research that Joan indeed governed the pontificate in the 9th century as there were accounts from Conrad Botho’s chronicles, which stated that Pope Johannes crowned Louis II of Italy as Holy Roman Emperor in A.D. 856.

Therefore, Habicht suggested that the pontiffs' administration’s timeline was this way:

  • Pope Leo IV — 846 to 853
  • Pope Benedict III — 853 to 855
  • Pope John VIII (Pope Joan) — 856 to 858
  • Pope Nicholas I — 858 to 867

The exposition of Pope Joan’s existence still haunts the Catholic church, even in these modern times. Her accounts were consistently denied, undermined, and even labeled as the “Dark Ages Urban Legend.” However, relevant studies and records about a particular Pope Johannes or Pope Joan persisted.

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I am a PR officer and a professional journalist with a master's degree in international development. I write history, geopolitics, food, and culture. Since I am a member of the API community, I make sure to highlight our stories to promote diversity and create awareness for cultural understanding.

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